The best outcome would be to resolve the case, with Meng’s return to China before the summer. This would free Liberals to focus on electoral issues, not international irritants. If it takes a former prime minister to get us there, so be it.
By Sheila Copps
First published in The Hill Times on June 17, 2019.
OTTAWA—Only in Canada is it considered a weakness to recruit a former prime minister to help solve the Huawei problem.
Reaction to the news that Jean Chrétien was willing to act as an envoy to meet with the Chinese leadership in the Meng Wanzhou extradition case was muted.
The offer was floated privately months ago. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Chrétien several weeks ago to discuss the Chinese deep freeze that has settled on Canada.
Former prime minister Brian Mulroney first publicly broached the idea of Chrétien’s involvement last week.
Both former leaders are getting feedback from the business community that this problem needs fixing.
Chrétien and Mulroney are unlikely allies. They spent a lifetime fighting each other in politics. But both have deep roots in Canadian business, which is anxiously searching for a way to heal this deepening Canada/China rift.
Some Liberal insiders are reticent to recruit a former prime minister, because they fear the optics of Chrétien coming in to fix a Trudeau problem.
These views were reflected in a Globe and Mail quote last week when former Canadian ambassador to China, Guy Saint-Jacques, said it would be a mistake if Chrétien “goes there and gets all the glory and Ms. Meng is free, well, it would give the impression that the prime minister is inexperienced and a neophyte and good old Mr. Chrétien is a reliable fixer.”
Saint-Jacques also said the opposition would pillory the government because the foreign minister and prime minister have repeatedly stated the courts should solve the issue.
The opposition will pillory the government, whatever the course of action.
But Conservatives did not mind when Trudeau recruited their former leader Rona Ambrose to work on free trade talks.
Nor did they complain when James Moore joined top New Democratic Party adviser Brian Topp on the same international trade advisory panel.
The last thing the Liberals need going into the election is to have Meng’s extradition overshadowing a positive economic story.
The Chinese have already taken aim at Canadian pork and canola production. Across the board, Canada-China business deals are being frozen out because of the extradition issue.
Saint-Jacques said the prime minister would risk the wrath of the Americans if the justice minister moved to end the extradition on condition the Huawei chief financial officer return to China.
But Americans have not been doing us any favours lately, and the president himself has publicly speculated that the Meng mess could be used as a bargaining chip in his free trade negotiations with China.
The bottom line is that Chrétien has deep and broad political and business ties with China. He is well-positioned to help extricate the Government of Canada from a mess that has not been of its own making.
Former Canadian ambassador to China John McCallum said early on that there were valid questions to be asked about the reasons behind the American request for extradition.
In McCallum’s words, Meng could make a very good court case against the extradition.
“One, political involvement by comments from Donald Trump in her case. Two, there’s an extraterritorial aspect to her case. And three, there’s the issue of Iran sanctions which are involved in her case, and Canada does not sign on to these Iran sanctions.”
“So I think she has some strong arguments that she can make before a judge.”
McCallum subsequently walked back his comments, saying he regretted saying what he did. But the next day he lost his job after telling a Vancouver reporter it would be “great for Canada” if the United States dropped their extradition request, repeating that any deal must include release of detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
Since McCallum’s firing, Trudeau has left the ambassadorial post vacant. The solution is a political, not a diplomatic one.
So it makes perfect sense to enlist a former prime minister to broker a much-needed truce.
There is risk for Trudeau in aborting the extradition process. But the risk of doing nothing is even greater.
With the Chinese refusing to take meetings, the dossier is currently a lose-lose situation for Trudeau and Freeland.
The best outcome would be to resolve the case, with Meng’s return to China before the summer. This would free Liberals to focus on electoral issues, not international irritants.
If it takes a former prime minister to get us there, so be it.
Chinese respect for elders is something Canada could learn from.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.